A major metropolis straddling the southwestern edge of Lake Superior, Duluth, Minnesota is regarded as one of the Midwest’s premiere destinations for scuba exploration and outdoor adventure
The crisp, still environment shared with other Great Lakes ports, combined with adventures down below, give pause to those who explore its reaches; and beyond the greater Duluth area, further sub surface expeditions await. As we will find, the chilly waters from Duluth to Isle Royale National Park offer an array of scuba diving sites suitable for diving aficionados of all skill levels: from shallow shores off historically important landmarks to deep wrecks that share their own unique history.
According to Joe Cheetham, experienced local diver and master dive instructor for Lake Superior Divers Supply and School in Duluth, the area from his headquarters to Isle Royale National Park offers a fair challenge for scuba explorers, especially those who are unaccustomed to exploring colder waters, and helps prep them for more colorful environments:
“There’s a sense of adventure, and the skills you need aren’t simple, but once practiced and the diver becomes comfortable and safe, Lake Superior itself is an interesting body of water to dive in: and from there you can go into underwater photography or diving shipwrecks. It’s rather cool so there are special [considerations] like more intensive equipment, though nothing too extreme. It adapts you to diving in different situations in many types of water.”
Two Harbors and Medeira
For training and shallow recreational pursuits, Cheetham and Lake Superior Divers Supply and School frequently take divers to Two Harbors: a city nearly 30 miles northeast along the coast. Heading off the historic Split Rock Lighthouse State Park provides a scenic and safe environment.
“It’s nice because they’ve got a parking lot,” Cheetham laughs. “DNR has put in a nice launching area for boats and harbor access for sport fisherman. It’s a safe harbor with a nice breakwall structure, which you can walk off and jump into 60 to 80 feet of water. The easy access offers multiple possibilities for training new divers in an open water situation for certifying and advanced classes.”
Prepping for a wreck diving lifestyle can be a challenging ordeal, especially when deeper shipwrecks prove daunting. Another reason for Two Harbors’ popularity is in the wreck of the Medeira: a 436-foot steel hull ship, which sunk north of Split Rock Lighthouse in November of 1905. Resting in 20 to 110 feet of water, the Madeirais considered one of Minnesota’s best shipwrecks for its multi-tiered position and easy access.
“It has its range of depths, and it’s not a difficult dive other than to swim out there,” Cheetham explains. “Within the range, you can get from 25 to 100 feet just diving on a rather nice shipwreck. It’s not one that you can get inside because it’s not that big, but it represents an interesting aspect of diving on a shipwreck: historical fact.”
Past Two Harbors and the wreck of the Medeira, divers launching from Duluth will more often than not find their way to greater Lake Superior and its bounty of shipwrecks, particularly in Isle Royale National Park: a 45-mile-long island, which hugs the border between Minnesota and Michigan.
Isle Royale National Park
“When people think of Lake Superior – especially people around this area – they think of cold,” says Cheetham. “It’s not the most interesting environment for seeing colorful fish or reefs all the time, but it has its own charms underwater: like seeing structures and how they change.”
The journey from Duluth to Isle Royale is fairly lengthy, but the stillness of the crisp northern air, coupled with the anticipation of exploring wrecks from yesteryear merits a character of its own. Currently, the park is in close proximity to 10 shipwrecks, which range from 19thcentury wooden steamers to 20thcentury steel freighters: each one carrying its unique history including visual evidence of its sinking. All wrecks near the island park are listed on the National Register, and as federal law dictates, removing artifacts or pieces of the forlorn vessels carries stringent penalties.
“Because of the depth and coldness of the water, the ships haven’t deteriorated quite to the extent of wrecks in warm or salt water; they look like they just sank,” Cheetham explains. “There are so many wrecks in the area that are easy to dive because there’s so many to choose from, and you need to do a charter: spending five days or a weekend trip.”
Lake Superior’s Isle Royale National Park is well maintained and regulated by the National Park Service who have placed a series of mooring buoys throughout the area to help scuba explorers easily find their choice destinations, and prevent or reduce damage to aqua environments and vessels below. Because of its remoteness, the park is a naturalist’s dream, offering sightseeing, wildlife observation and photography, camping, hiking, and many other natural wonders; on the other hand, its isolated status also means there are few amenities nearby, with divers often stopping at the Grand Portage Lodge and Casino for overnight accommodations and phone services. Camping on the island is a popular alternative, and with 36 camping sites, there are plenty of options to choose from; though park services are closed from November until mid-April. Cheetham strongly recommends scuba explorers pick a liveaboard operation to get the most out of underwater exploration, and he and his company choose Michigan business Isle Royale Charters as their go-to operator.
For more information on Isle Royale National Park, including regulations and permits needed to explore the island, and events and happenings throughout the year, visit the National Park Services’ webpage at www.nps.gov/isro.
Out of all 10 wrecks off the island park, Cheetham prefers the remnants of the Emperor: a large, multi-tiered steel freighter locale on Isle Royale’s northeastern most side, which starts at easier depths hovering 25 feet, and slopes to about 175 feet at the stern.
Cheetham’s praise for the mighty Emperor expands beyond the island proper, and he considers it one of his absolute favorites within Lake Superior’s entirety. He describes a particular encounter, which solidified his love for it:
“It sank mostly intact, sitting inclined on the reef. We worked our way down the rails on the side of the ship, and on one section the vessel was standing agape on the reef so we could swim under it – at about 75 feet – which I had never done before. We descended to about 140 or so into the engine room, seeing emergency plaques for the crewmates. We moseyed around the engine room, and came up through the hatch. It was probably the coolest wreck dive I’ve had in Lake Superior.”
Measuring in at 525 feet, the Emperor was built in 1910 and was owned by the Canadian Steamships Line. Emperor met her end in June of 1947 after running aground on a shoal off Isle Royale and sank. Because of her dual range of depth, novice and advanced divers can get a lot out of this site. Divers generally explore her deck and stern, which still hold machinery and equipment; shallower portions of the wreck have been damaged by ice, and her pilothouse has completely deteriorated. Underwater photographers will want to keep a close eye on intact anchors, propellers and blades, and other Progressive Era instruments.
As mentioned earlier, scuba explorers who want to get the most out of Isle Royale National Park should plan a long excursion to get the most out of their diving vacation. Other wrecks off the island, though no less important than the Emperor, include the Algoma, America, Chisholm, Congdon, Cox, Cumberland, Glenlyon, Kamloops, and Monarch.
Whether for training or recreational diving, or sojourning to sites beyond the immediate area, scuba diving near Duluth provides unique opportunities for a variety of divers. From the acclaimed port city to Two Harbors to beloved Isle Royale, this pocket of Lake Superior is an area not to be missed.
For more information on vacationing in the Duluth area, go to www.visitduluth.com.